Bootleg Paradise

PrintPrintEmailEmailProhibition ranks among America’s most vivid historic epochs. Yet the era of flappers and jazz is also curiously Oz-like. The drinking ban dominated the American social and cultural conversation between 1920 and 1933. Then one day the country awoke as if from a dream to find all traces of it gone, save for a few bootlegged bottles that washed up at local historical society museums, flotsam on history’s beach.

I’d been doing research on Prohibition for a book on the history of rum and cocktail culture and early on got the idea that it would be enlightening to visit some of the era’s shrines. But where were they? There’s no Prohibition National Park, of course, and hardly anything more substantial than specious stories and the vanished footprints of long-dead smugglers.

One place piqued my curiosity, however. I had often come upon references to Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, a little-known archipelago off the coast of Newfoundland, which served as a major entrepôt for smuggling on the Eastern Seaboard. The islands are to this day part of France, the last vestige of a once-sprawling colonial empire. They’re just 93 square miles—slightly smaller than the borough of Queens, New York—but these tiny islands were to Prohibition what Iwo Jima was to the Pacific Theater in World War II, dots on a map whose history far surpassed their humble geography.

I resolved to take a trip there, with the hope that I might find traces of that lost era of smuggled booze.

On January 16, 1919, Nebraska became the thirty-sixth state to ratify a constitutional amendment prohibiting liquor sales in America. Soon after, Congress passed the Volstead Act, which contained the legal mechanics to enforce the ban. Starting in January 1920, anyone involved in the production, transfer, or sale of any alcoholic beverage in America would face jail time and confiscation of property.

Liquor, like any liquid, has a natural propensity to seek its way around obstacles. So bootleggers decanted whiskey into the spare tires of their cars in Canada and crossed the border with a practiced insouciance. In the South, liquor flowed into Florida’s mangrove swamps from Bimini and the Bahamas under cloudy night skies. Business took off in the least expected places.

The brightly painted buildings on Île aux Marins, bottom, once housed fishermen; today they are an outdoor museum.
 
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Among them: Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, a compact cluster of small, largely treeless islands, which the Portuguese explorer João Alvarez Faguendes had come upon in 1520. French and Basque fishermen subsequently showed a keen interest in them, thanks to the teeming stocks of codfish on nearby fishing banks. France claimed the islands and fortified Saint-Pierre’s harbor in 1700, but the British overran the defenses two years later and occupied it until 1763.

That year marked the French defeat in the Seven Years’ War and the end of France’s New World dominion—an empire that once included much of present-day Canada and several strategic islands in the West Indies. British negotiators evidently took sympathy on France and in the end returned Saint-Pierre and Miquelon in order that the French might fish for cod. (One imagines British negotiators privately snickering about leaving the once-powerful French with what one visitor later called “little dots of gorse and granite.”)

The French tricolor rippling in the wind was among the first things I noticed after I made a 24-mile ferry crossing from Newfoundland and cleared Saint-Pierre customs. The ferry terminal fronts the Place du Général de Gaulle, and stepping outside I immediately knew that culturally I wasn’t in North America any more. Renaults and Citroëns zipped by with callous disregard for pedestrian safety. Islanders emerged from the patisserie on the plaza carrying baguettes and smoking Gitanes. Everything was priced in euros, and every shop closed for two hours at noon.

Colorful houses—turquoise and yellow and purple with green trim—stair-stepped down the hillsides that enclose the harbor, creating a cityscape that looks like a bowlful of Legos. This tight settlement pattern is far more European than what I’d found in Atlantic Canada, which favors stoic houses perched individually on rocky bluffs in defiance of the wind.